Indie Basement (5/21): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
This week in Indie Basement: Super Furry Animals' Gruff Rhys has made one of his best-ever albums with Seeking New Gods; Japanese band CHAI mellow out just a little on their first album for Sub Pop; Chicago trio FACS make their best record yet; No Joy go orchestral; and Soulwax brothers David & Stephen Dewaele celebrate their label DEEWEE's 50th release with an awesome new compilation.
If you need more new record reviews, Andrew tackles a whopping 10 (!) in Notable Releases. Other records that I like but don't write about this week include the spare, near ambient new Lambchop album Showtunes, and Mdou Moctar's Afrique Victime. As for other Basement-approved stuff from this week: this new posthumous U-Roy album sounds very promising; I like the new LoneLady single; Arizona duo Trees Speak make cool komische-inspired instrumentals; and My Bloody Valentine's EPs are finally on streaming services.
Just a reminder that BrooklynVegan has a store and is stocked with lots of Basement-y records, like an exclusive transparent ambert edition of A Certain Ratio's ACR:EPR EP. We've also got the new pressing of My Bloody Valentine's 2013 album m b v, and classic vinyl like Can's Monster Movie, Japan's A Quiet Life, Sonic Youth's EVOL, Slowdive's Slouvaki, and Pavement's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.
Head. below for this week's reviews.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Gruff Rhys - Seeking New Gods (Rough Trade)
With songs inspired by a mountain, The Super Furry Animals frontman's new album is all peaks
"I got obsessed by a mountain a few years back," Gruff Rhys says, speaking of active East Asian volcano Mount Paektu. Gruff was so obsessed that he initially set out to write a biography about the mountain, but as he researched it, it sparked the songwriting part of his brain. The songs became more personal, while still inspired by Paektu, and took shape on his 2018 North American tour where the songs frequently entered his setlists. At the end of the tour, Gruff and his band (drummer Kliph Scurlock, bassist Steven "Sweet Baboo" Black, keyboardist Osian Gwynedd) recorded in Joshua Tree, CA and then recorded a few more songs when they got back to the UK. The record was all but done at the end of 2019, but then the pandemic hit and Gruff says he ended up mastering it three separate times and "reassembling it."
While rock n' roll rarely improves with an extended cook time, it seems to have helped Seeking New Gods which is one of Gruff Rhys' best-ever records (solo, Super Furry Animals or other). The album's themes are ones that Gruff has explored since at least SFA's "Slow Life," the idea that geology and terrain are permanent fixtures that watch the earth's inhabitants (and their gods) rise and fall, and how it's all intertwined with memory and time. Seeking New Gods is full of big ideas, but they're all told from a personal, humanistic perspective.
More than anything, Seeking New Gods has Gruff's best batch of melodies since at least 2011's Hotel Shampoo. Road-testing many of these songs before recording with a terrific band helped too, but he was clearly inspired here. The album starts off with three instant classics -- "Mausoleum of My Former Self," "Can't Carry On" and "Loan Your Loneliness" -- which all have the kind of soaring choruses you associate with Rhys and Super Furry Animals. This is a mellow record, full of acoustic guitars, piano and spacey synths, but it's never a boring one and his unique harmony style can still send shivers. This mountain is practically all peaks, from the gorgeous, glammy title track, to the bouncy "Holiest of the Holy Men" (which is very SFA), to the skronky "The Keep."
The most moving song comes at the end. "Distant Snowy Peaks" takes a circular piano figure and minimalist lyrics -- "We ran the fields together / To reach the distant snowy peaks / Looking for truth and wisdom in the snow" -- and builds them into a spiraling mantra that becomes more hypnotic and moving as it grows. (It could've gone on 15 minutes longer than it does and I'd have still been entranced.) The whole of Seeking New Gods works like that, deepening on repeat. "It’s still a biography of a mountain," Gruff writes in the album's liner notes, "but now it’s a Mount Paektu of the mind. You won’t learn much about the real mountain from listening to this record but you will feel something, hopefully.”
Meanwhile, Gruff has teamed with the BBC to create an immersive version of Seeking New Gods that allows your streaming devices to link up to play the album in a new way. The BBC says it works best with at least four devices, and the more you have the more unique it will be. Here's Kliph Scurlock on its creation: "I had a lot of fun remixing the album for multiple devices and playing around with the placing of the various instruments and voices. I am a child of the ‘70s, so I remember when quadrophonic systems were sort of a thing, and I sought to sort of emulate that kind of experience…If I have done what I set out to do, some songs will just sound like you’re in the room while the band was recording (we did, in fact, record the album all playing together in the same room) and some songs will make those who are prone to motion sickness quite dizzy with the movement of different things. It all kind of varies depending on the song. I wanted to honor the songs first and foremost and play with the format second. You may have cottoned on to the fact that I’m a big fan of Gruff’s. Well, that all began by me being a fan of his music, so that’s what remains most important to me. If you find that the drums are too loud in any song, well, you’ll know whose ego got the best of them while mixing.” Yes, it does sound a bit like The Flaming Lips Zaireeka but for our current age. But it also sounds pretty cool. Learn more here.
CHAI - WINK (SUB POP)
Japanese band chill out just a bit on their first album for Sub Pop
Up until this point, Japan's CHAI have been known for hypercolor sensory overload. Their album's PINK and PUNK, stylized in capital letters, are full of fun, in-your-face pop that present the group's signature indefatigable neo-kawaii ("new cute") style. Having made a name for themselves with their colorful, choreographed and energetic live shows, CHAI may well have continued on that path for their third album, their first for Sub Pop, if it hadn't been for the pandemic. (This may be a theme in Indie Basement this week.) Unable to tour, the band began exploring more studio oriented sounds, experimenting with hip hop beats, and allowing themselves to chill out just a little. The result is WINK, a record that still sounds only like CHAI but that is very different from their first two albums.
WINK opens with "Donuts Mind if I Do," a synthy jam (jelly?) clearly inspired by '90s R&B (they've cited TLC as an influence on this album) that's an ode to their love of sweets. Food has always been a big part of CHAI's world and reaches Cibo Matto levels this time around. Another of their more sultry, psychedelic numbers, "Maybe Chocolate Chips," follows immediately after, imagining their moles as the candy of the title, while "Karaage" is a love song for Japanese style fried chicken, sung from the perspective of the dish ("Please eat before I cool down / Don't put too much chili sauce"). The best of these is "Vitamin C," a gleaming, jazzy dance number about good nutrition that acknowledges "Some days we do get a little bit crazy and make mistakes / But it’s okay if you're healthy."
CHAI still work best with a little more forward momentum: "ACTION" is a housey jam that embraces new sounds but still gives you that amped-up vitality, as does "END" that sounds like an early-'90s club track with its breakbeat rhythm and fuzzy bass. Best of all, though, is "PING PONG!" which sounds like it's straight out of a Sega Genesis game that mixes 8-bit sounds with a clubby 2-step beat. This is a world that you could imagine CHAI being birthed from, their origin story. Maybe their fourth album will also be a video game.
FACS - Present Tense (Trouble in Mind)
Chicago trio deftly balance groove, power, melody and dread on their best record yet
Like with Brian Case's former band Disappears, FACS evolve with every record they make. I called their bleak 2018 debut Negative Houses' "a black hole" of a record, after which the group's lineup solidified with powerhouse drummer (and Disappears member) Noah Leger and new bassist Alianna Kalaba. You could feel their bond grow on 2019's Lifelike, and on last year's Void Moments that sounded like the perfectly paranoid soundtrack to the oppressive doom that was 2020. Present Tense, which is a great, subtly clever title that also works as a descriptor for the band, finds FACS building off Void Moments' best moments, creating their most compelling realized work yet. They are masters of atmosphere, specifically dread, and that atmosphere can fill a room like sooty smoke. From the opening drum rumbles of "XOUT," you're set on edge, but this time it's more of an alluring vibe, drawing you in but keeping you at arm's length. A sultry groove permeates tracks like "Strawberry Cough," "How to See in the Dark" and the title track, and the whole album is generally more hooky than anything Case has done since The Ponys. Recorded at Electrical Audio, the album sounds massive with the rhythm section continuing to power things, while Case's guitar is used mainly for atmospherics. (His voice, meanwhile, is more forward in the mix than on previous albums, but still obscured with distortion and effects.) No one would call Present Tense a pop record and it's as unrelenting as the rest of their catalogue -- "Alone Without" and "Mirrored" are among the most intense things they've ever done -- but more things grab you from the shadows this time, and don't let go.
Various Artists - DEEWEE 50: FOUNDATIONS (DEEWEE)
The 50th release from the label run by Soulwax's David & Stephen Dewaele is a portal into their dance aesthetic
Brothers David & Stephen Dewaele, aka Soulwax aka 2 Many DJs, launched their own label, DEEWEE, in 2015 as an extension of their studio in Ghent, Belgium. They actually take it a little further, calling DEEWEE "a building, a studio, a label, a record collection and a publishing house." In addition to releasing their own music, DEEWEE has released records from Charlotte Adigéry, onetime Klaxons frontman James Righton, and more, all of which are produced by the Dewaeles. For their 50th DEEWEE release, they've put out a compilation titled FOUNDATIONS that serves a sort of Greatest Hits for the label as well as a great representation of David & Stephen's ethos to dance music -- and style (the packaging is gorgeous) -- that plays out like a two-hour DJ set (even though the songs aren't mixed together).
FOUNDATIONS also features three new songs, the best of which is Charlotte Adigéry's great "Bear With Me (and I'll stand bare before you)" that is hopefully a whistle-wetter for her debut album. Slinky, with disco strings that dart in dramatically, "Bear with Me" takes its time but works up a wonderful head of steam. Also new: James Righton's "Release Party" which channels early Prince, and the quirky, "Leave" by Future Sound Of Antwerp's Movulango. The Dewaeles have a definite style -- spare, with big analogue synths, cracking drums, and arrangements with lots of headroom that layer-up as they go -- that you can hear, whether it's a track from Soulwax (like "Heaven Scent" featuring Chloe Sevigny), or Charlotte, or her musical partner Boris Pupil, ASA MOTO's afrobeat-ish "Wanowan Efem," the space disco of Phillipi's "9000," or the rest of the artists across these 27 songs. Dance music tastes and styles morph on a daily basis; the Dewaeles move with it while staying with their evergreen dancefloor (preferably ringed by eight McIntosh stacks).
No Joy - Can My Daughter See Me From Heaven EP (Joyful Noise / Hand Drawn Dracula)
Born out of lockdown, No Joy go orchestral, taking inspiration from Bjork, Portishead and, uh, Korn
When she couldn't tour for No Joy's great, indescribable 2020 album Motherhood, Jasamine White-Gluz missed the way her studio creations took on new life in the live setting, so she set out to scratch that itch in a new way. Inspired by live videos of Bjork, Portishead, Massive Attack, Korn (yes, Korn, she is unapologetic of her nu metal roots), and others, Jasamine reimagined a few of the Motherhood songs with new, orchestral recordings. Not a remix record, not an "unplugged record," Can My Daughter See Me From Heaven stands on its own as a mostly chill, more organic companion to the whacked-out world of Motherhood. The "From Heaven" versions of "Kidder" and "Fish" are particularly inspired, lush with harp, harmonies and operatic vocals. "Four" and "Dream Rats," meanwhile, are heavy but also grand, sounding like what No Joy could've been as a big, mid-'00s style Canadian collective. Then there's a cover of Deftones' "Teenager" which takes the original's Cocteau Twins influences and really goes with it. This may not be a style No Joy ever experiments with again, but its creation is one small silver lining to 2020.
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